• subtitle: Use Of Surfboards As Marketing Tools Makes iStar Financial’s Asbury Park Development Plans Even More Controversial

Written by  Jon Coen
Wednesday, 7/30/14

Surfing in advertising is nothing new. Our culture (or at least the carefree, sun-soaked, hip image of it) has been associated with cool for about 60 years. From soda to investment banking, video games to 4-wheel drive trucks, brands and products that have nothing to do with riding waves associate themselves with our lifestyle. And whether it’s cheesy Hawaiian décor at a beach bar, or a conscientious organization legitimately investing in surfers as ambassadors, it’s all part of the marketing landscape.

Of course, sometimes advertisers see surfboards as a fantastic phallic symbol. And sometimes they’re just being dicks. If you railed against every business or municipality on your coast that used surfing in its branding, you’d find little time for anything else. Much of the time, it’s nothing but innocuous imagery. But a recent case in Asbury Park, NJ, reflects a different reality: iStar Residential, a division of iStar Financial, a major residential and commercial real estate investor, tried to co-opt surfing without considering the fact that their future projects are an affront to the very culture.

iStar owns 33 acres of Asbury Park’s waterfront and, in 2012, partnered with Madison Marquette, the retail developer of Asbury’s famed waterfront. Bruce Springsteen may have built the Stone Pony, but iStar owns it. By now, everyone knows the story of this archetypical city-by-the-sea seashore playground that became a crossroads of American rock ‘n’ roll history. Its fall became equally recognized, as fires, race riots, corruption and economic downturn left the waterfront a ghost town in a state where shore property is always at a premium.

But while Asbury is celebrated for its past, a dream has always existed for its future. Many young business owners have moved to Asbury in the last ten years, coinciding with a massive economic comeback. Every weekend for five months of the year, the half-mile waterfront is not only bustling but the most unique stretch on the entire Jersey coast — an everyman’s resort compared to more exclusive communities nearby and a little more creative than your average boardwalk town.

Part of that has to do with the counterculture that invested time and ideas in the ‘90s and early 2000s – painters, skaters, restaurateurs, photographers, tattoo artists, promoters, musicians, and, of course, a gay community that shook Asbury back to life. Surf culture has played no small role in reminding the general public that there is a beach (and waves) here just like the ones in Ocean Grove, Belmar, Long Brach, Seaside, etc. The other part of it had to do with financial folks – the ones who invest money, something the aforementioned groups are historically lacking in early stages. Their combined vision and aesthetics have worked parallel to make Asbury what it is today. (Read more after the slideshow)

(Continued from above) 

“A dozen years ago, surfing was illegal in Asbury Park,” says John Weber, East Coast Chapter Coordinator of Surfrider Foundation. “And not just in the summer, not just on certain beaches, not at certain times of the day — it was illegal to surf in Asbury Park, anywhere, anytime, 24/7/365 until the Surfrider Jersey Shore Chapter worked with the Asbury Park mayor and City Council to lift the ban and establish a designated daytime surfing beach on the north end of town in 2003. This gave people an early reason to come to Asbury Park. By then, there were certainly development plans, and investment had begun. But surfing was part of the equation of getting people to play, work, and live in Asbury Park. Clearly that formula has worked. Surfing is cool, it’s healthy, it connects you to your environment in a unique way, and it depends on a clean accessible beach and usable ocean environment.”

But one sticking point has existed in recent years — a battle between the public and iStar for plans to build 15 townhomes in an area known as the North End Beach, or Bradley Cove. "The Townhomes at Bradley Cove have been opposed by the people of Asbury Park since the plans were made public in 2007,” says Joe Woerner, Surfrider Foundation’s Campaign Manager for Save Asbury Park’s North End Beach. “Since then, thousands of people have voiced their opposition at meeting, rallies, and in letters to decision makers. Everyone loves this spot in Asbury Park: fishermen, dog lovers, surfers, seniors, and beachgoers. All you need to do is let them know what iStar has planned and they become activists. The proposed development would put a 500-foot wall of townhomes, 45 feet high, between the beach and the community. It will create a physical and visual barrier and has the potential to restrict access. As we all know, when high-end development takes place on the eastern side of Ocean Avenue, access becomes limited. Just take a look north of Asbury in Deal, Monmouth Beach, and Sea Bright."

The North End Beach property has become a non-commercial public gathering place where people can socialize just off the beach, something rare on the East Coast, so beach users can be forgiven for assuming that the development will decrease accessibility. North End Beach also happens to be the designated summer surf beach. Development there would reduce the gravel lot where surfers and fishermen park year-round, build on the Ocean Ave. right of way, and encroach 11 feet into Green Acres Grant land. Not to mention, this is where the ocean met Deal Lake during Hurricane Sandy, meaning it’s a designated V-Zone vulnerable to coastal storms. Activists have been working hard to persuade the city of Asbury Park or Monmouth County to purchase the land from iStar to make it a public park. 

One way to raise funds to buy the development rights back from iStar is through a Green Acres Grant. The first step required to do that is for iStar to write a letter in support of the grant, indicating their willingness to sell if they are compensated at fair market value. Right now an independent appraisal is in progress that Green Acres will pay for if the application is accepted. Activists already have country freeholders on board. But iStar refused in early July to write that letter, which has bogged all the negotiations down in an unfortunate quagmire. iStar supporters argue that the company has built the apartments that new Asbury Park residents are moving into, providing housing for the very people who put on their Chuck Taylors and skip to the sushi joints, surf shops, music venues, and art galleries on the boardwalk. But actually, iStar has only built one project, Vive on Asbury Ave., which, by this town’s standards, is expensive and not all that imaginative.

But Bradley Cove at the North End is just one project iStar has in mind to add to their real estate empire in Asbury Park. And this summer, in order to show just how committed they are to building more condos, their righteous way of “fulfilling the promise of the Asbury Park Waterfront,” they sent out a message. They marked all 25 of the lots of future projects with the coolest symbol they could find — surfboards. Now, it seems that anyone associated with surfing in Asbury Park is furious. First off, the boards are the kind of beat-up old thrusters and beginner longboards with no aesthetic value that someone who doesn’t surf hangs in his deli. But instead of serving sandwiches, iStar is marking claim to properties that could change the very character of Asbury Park — and using a symbol of one of the very communities that has bought Asbury back from the dead. Brian Cheripka, vice president of land for iStar Residential, told the Asbury Park Sun that the company’s goal is to “keep the spirit of Asbury Park” intact. “Every surfboard represents a future project that we are working on, or will be working on, across the Asbury Park [w]aterfront,” he said. “We care about this city, and we truly hope that the community recognizes our long-term commitment and understands that no individual project is planned without being thought of in context of other future development. Cheripka added that it is important for residents to know they are not planning “in a vacuum” and seek to bring architecturally diverse projects to the city’s waterfront. Referring to the surfboards, he said, “This is a little something we can do for the community that helps them see the bigger picture.” 

Predictably, it wasn’t long before that big picture was tagged with graffiti like “Culture Thieves,” the letters “F U” followed by an eye and a star, and surf stickers. It was a move right out of Hunter S. Thompson’s playbook, staged under cloak of darkness — and no one has taken responsibility (or credit) for the action yet. Your average local Asbury Park surfer may have moved here within the last six years, but those responsible for these guerrilla actions are a slightly different breed. Think Patagonia wetsuits and kimchi tacos with a side of activism. Now, perhaps iStar should be granted a little leniency here. Many major surf brands are publicly traded companies similarly concerned with profits — clearly, the lines between culture and corporate are a little blurry in 2014. But Woerner and others consider it a personal affront. "Maybe it was just a bad PR move, but it sure sends a signal to the people of Asbury Park and Monmouth County that iStar is still planning to build in an area the community loves,” he says. “They have an important role to play in bringing our city back. Everyone in town wants to see the partnership with iStar be a successful one. We want a seat at the table to begin a dialogue. Planting a surfboard at North End Beach does not help begin that dialogue." 

iStar has every right to buy a bunch of shitty used boards and erect them on property they own. But as any pro will tell you, public relations works both ways.

For more information, visit Surfrider Foundation's Save Asbury Park website